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How To Overcome Normalcy Bias

Updated on February 8, 2012
Now is the time to develop an emergency plan for you and your family.
Now is the time to develop an emergency plan for you and your family.

What is normalcy bias?

This isn’t phrase that many people including myself hear on a daily basis. To be honest, I really didn’t hear this phrase until the recently. With all that’s be going on around the world recently, including the uprisings in the Middle East that seem to have come from nowhere as well as the large earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan you would think this is what put this phrase into my mind.

No, it was an approaching ice storm that local meteorologist told us would be catastrophic that jump started my mind.

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I noticed people scrambling about to get ready for the ice storm that had the potential to leave us without power for several days. I noticed folks running here and there to get the basics supplies they should already have such as flash lights, batteries basic food stores and so on.

I noticed near panic buying by the unprepared. Milk, bread and eggs flew off the shelves (I reckon folks in the Midwest like French toast when snowed in) fire wood, canned goods and of all things, snow shovels were in short supply.

I started to wonder why people didn’t seem to have stuff on hand for typical winter use such as a snow shovel, window scraper etc. At the time I didn’t know there was a word or phrase for this condition. That is until last night. I watched a part of a doom and gloom video, tucked in the middle of this video was the phrase Normalcy Bias.

What is normalcy bias? Wikipedia describes normalcy bias as:

"A mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects."

This often results in situations where people fail to adequately prepare for a disaster, and on a larger scale, the failure of the government to include the populace in its disaster preparations.

The assumption that is made in the case of the normalcy bias is that since a disaster never has occurred that it never will occur. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.

Why wasn’t this planning in place before? Simple, no one thought it could happen. Granted not many people would have thought a group of crazies would fly planes into an office building making planning for such an event unlikely. However, planning for a fire is something that should have been in place beyond a placard on a wall. No one really thought a high rise office building could burn much less fall down, not here, not in the United States. 

What I get from this is normalcy bias is a process in which people despite the evidence refuse to or is unable to plan on a worst case scenario.  Prior to 9-11-01, how many people do know gave serious thought to evacuating a high rise office building in case of an emergency. Short after the September attacks, many businesses regardless of their locations came up with evacuation plans. They also came up with plans to continue business in the event of a catastrophic event. 

A common web example of normalcy bias is the tragedy in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina land fall. It is reported that many residents didn’t evacuate because they simply couldn’t envision the levees failing. These people waited until it was too late to evacuate. They found themselves stranded without the most basic of supplies. 

We have conditioned ourselves to not believe a major disaster or catastrophic event could take place where we live. As an example, I live in tornado alley and notice folks refusing to believe a tornado could rip through their place with little or no warning. These people just don’t pay attention to the weather forecasts during tornado season and certainly don’t take cover once a warning has been issued. Why, because tornados don’t land in the city, they only land in trailer parks outside the city. The 2002 tornado outbreak in Indiana changed a lot of folk’s minds

A non disaster example or normalcy bias could be in the area of relationships. Consider this, a person who has been in a long term relationship may begin to notice subtle changes in their mate. Their mate may begin to become very secretive, argumentative, and less intimate. Maybe their mate suddenly starts to “work late”, come home late or not at all and when they do they have the proverbial lip stick on the color or smell of a cologne you know you don’t own. 

Normalcy bias may cause one to not really want to look into the situation thinking he/she’s always been a great mate, they would never do this to me. Suddenly, without warning you may get the “I love you but I’m not in love with you” speech that could suddenly be followed up with divorce papers. Normalcy bias prevented the now single mate from investigating the situation and planning for the worst case scenario of divorce and possible economic hardship that result from the scourge of divorce or best case scenario, planning to fix the relationship based on knowing what was going on and could happen if it wasn’t fixed. 

Normalcy bias I’ve noticed is absent in at least one area of everyday life. How many of you have a life insurance policy? Life is insurance is based on the worst of the worst case scenarios I CAN think of, your death. Life insurance isn’t for you, it’s for your family in the event of your untimely demise. Life insurance is planning for the worse at its best. No normalcy bias here. 

It’s time we plan for other worst case scenarios now! Whether it’s a blizzard, earthquake, flood, tornado or a mass casualty attack, we need to think out the possibilities and have a basic plan and supplies in place. It’s time to understand “it” CAN happen here.

It’s time to be prepared not scared.


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